A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the 2015 Keble Mass, at St Martin’s Hawksburn, on 20 July 2015:
John Keble, whose memory we honour at this annual Eucharist, is probably one of the most prolific hymnodists of the nineteenth century. In his The Christian Year: thoughts in verse for the Sundays and holydays throughout the year, the Oxford Tractarian succeeded in providing a hymn for each day of the Church’s calendar, many of which have become firm favourites among Anglican congregations. Most of you will have a favourite Keble hymn, though you may not necessarily think of it as a ‘Keble’ hymn. Your favourite might be an eventide or morning hymn, like Keble’s translation of the traditional Greek evening hymn, Hail, gladdening light, or his joyful, New ev’ry morning is the love, his Lord in thy name, thy servants plead, his majestic hymn in celebration of the fourth evangelist, Word supreme before creation, or his contemplative Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear.
Many of Keble’s hymns are characterised by their vivid imagery and fine poetry, as befits a theologian who also held the position of Professor of Poetry—then as now very much a working poet’s post—at the University of Oxford. In hymns such as Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear, each verse is a poem in itself:
Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if thou be near;
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes.
The presence of Christ in the human soul is likened to the sunrise of Easter morn: the risen Son becomes the sunrise of the human soul that can illumine even the darkest night. Here, in a single stanza, the great mystery of salvation is translated from the events of Easter that changed the course of human relationships with God forever, and is brought closer to the experience of those who would hymn the One who shines in our hearts: bright Easter light chases away the remaining shadows, ‘it is not night if thou be near’. Death is overcome by life, and makes our own deaths journeys home to God:
till in the ocean of thy love
we lose ourselves in heaven above.
Sun of my soul
Keble’s hyms are both pastoral, and theological. They seek to strengthen us, the singers, in our own understanding of the faith, and in our devotion to God—the subject of all of Keble’s hymns. In his Pentecost hymn, When God of old came down from heaven, he creates bridges in poetry between the eternal, and the universal and the personal and individual. God who is ‘of old’ sends his Spirit to ‘fill the Church of God’, and seeks to fill each human heart with his goodness and love: ‘to turn to God and be saved, all the end of the earth’, as our first lesson puts it (Isaiah 45.22). Keble ends his Pentecost hymn with this passionate appeal:
Come Lord, come Wisdom, Love and Power,
open our ears to hear;
let us not miss the accepted hour;
save, Lord, by love or fear.
When God of old came down from heaven
Or, in his hymn for St John’s-tide, when he sets forth in words of poetry the mystery of the Word-made-flesh at the heart of our Gospel reading (John 1.1-14):
Word supreme, before creation
born of God eternally,
who didst will for our salvation
to be born on earth, and die. …
Word supreme, before creation
The eternal God takes flesh, Keble tells in his hymn, so that at the end of all time, we humans might partake in God’s presence forever; be assured of God’s judgement of love. With God, the God-with-us in Christ, there is no more need for Christ’s followers to fear the day of reckoning, Keble writes. Indeed, God’s wrath has been turned to love, for those who trust his promise, Keble has us sing:
Lo! heaven’s doors lift up, revealing
how thy judgments earthward move;
scrolls unfolded, trumpets pealing,
wine-cups from the wrath above,
yet o’er all a soft voice stealing
‘Little children, trust and love!’
Word supreme, before creation
Keble’s hymns have profoundly influenced Anglican worship. True, some of his many hymns have fallen out of use, mainly because of their length: the four-verse hymn that lent its title to this sermon, Blest are the pure in heart, for instance, started off as a seventeen-verse hymn for St Matthew’s Day—we just don’t sing hymns that long any more. Other of Keble’s hymns have been significantly re-edited for modern use: many of the translations of hymns from the ancient church, such as his ‘Faithful Cross! Above all other’, and his ‘Sing my tongue’, for example, form the textual basis for later hymns of the same titles compiled by J.M. Neale and the editors of the English Hymnal and, as such, have shaped much of our Holy Week observance, or our ritual understanding of the Eucharist.
The enduring popularity of Keble’s hymns derives from his skill to bridge the world of theological thought—of often intricate abstract concepts such as the Incarnation or the real presence in the Eucharist—with the world of human experience. In order to achieve this, Keble draws on his own theological depth, and his profound understanding as someone redeemed, loved, and claimed by Christ. The overarching purpose of Keble’s hymnody is this: that Christ is ‘our pattern and our King’, and that, through Word and Sacrament
still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart
And for his cradle and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.
All of these strands—the evangelistic, the theological, the personal and devotional—Keble skilfully renders into poetry and, some might say, ‘Anglicanism’: Keble’s rendering of ageless theological truth in a very Anglican garb gave shape to modern Catholic Anglican theology. His output and his insight made him a natural choice for the editors of the English Hymnal; indeed, while Keble is outshone by his earlier contemporary Charles Wesley, and his fellow Tractarian J.M. Neale, in the New English Hymnal, he still does maintain a very strong popular presence in our hymnals.
In tonight’s epistle reading (Romans 10.10-15) St Paul asks the questions that motivated Keble and his fellow Tractarians, and the many evangelists, apostles, priests and faithful, before him in their mission. How may those who are still far off in the life of faith ‘call on one in whom they have not believed?’ How are those outside, or at the margins of the church, ‘to believe in one of whom they have never heard?’ Indeed, ‘how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ?’ (Romans 10.14). Keble, who sought to bring the truth of the gospel close to us by the words of his hymns and tracts, is to be counted among the bearers of Good News. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’—Paul concludes today’s epistle, citing Isaiah (Romans 10.15, Isaiah 52.7). How beautiful are those who bring Good News: and you will agree that Keble’s hymns cause us to sing of the Good News of our salvation most beautifully.
How can we come to know Christ, and how can we come to a closer relationship with him, Paul asks in our epistle, and provides himself the answer: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10.10). Earlier in our Chapter, Paul spoke of how his heart’s desire is for all to be saved, to be called to come close to Christ. And in the light of this fervent desire, he considers the role of those who proclaim Good News, who bring the Word of God close to us, so that all can proclaim: ‘the Word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts’ (Romans 10.8).
Keble shares this desire to expound the gospel, in his own day, and still does so today through his hymns (though he also wrote countless poems—sonnets, hymns and ballads—some on key aspects of the faith, such as the role of Scripture, others on heroes of Anglicanism such as Ridley, Cranmer and Hooker, others on the danger of dissenters and the necessity for church unity, the ‘love of mammon’ he perceived in the United States, the dwindling of congregations, or the desire to keep the service short: ‘but faith is cold, and wilful men are strong,/ And the blithe world, with bells and harness proud,/ Rides tinkling by, so musical and loud,/ It drowns the Eternal Word, the Angelic Song;/ And one by one the weary, listless throng,/ Steals out of church, and leaves the choir unseen/ of winged guards to weep, where prayer had been,/ That souls immortal find that hour too long’, Length of the Prayers).
It was St Augustine who famously asserted that ‘those who sing, pray twice’. Keble’s skill with pen and words enabled him to add instruction in the Christian faith to St Augustine’s sung prayers. ‘How can they believe in one of whom they have never heard?’, Paul asked (Romans 10.14). Throughout his life Keble sought to bring the faith he had inherited to the people around him. His motivation to do so was to bring the faith of the universal church to the English-speaking people where they were, in words and music they understood. Throughout his life Keble yearned for the hearts of his fellows, and his own heart, to become ‘a place where angels sing!/ … And enter in and dwell,/ And teach that heart to swell/ With heavenly melody, their own untired employ’ (In Choirs and Places where they Sing, here followeth the Anthem).
Like our gospel writer, Keble is a poet of the Word made Flesh. And like our gospel writer Keble puts the coming of the Word of God in human flesh at the centre of his hymnody. But equally important to him is a second central strand of John’s gospel: that God’s Word can come so close to us that it can truly be said to dwell in us, that it can sustain us, in body and soul. And for Keble, as for John, this personal in-dwelling is found in the bread of the Eucharist. Keble expounds the true presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist, when he invites us to sing with him:
Oh, come to our Communion Feast:
There present, in the heart
As in the hands, th’ eternal Priest
Will His true self impart.
‘The word of God is near you’, Paul knew, if it is brought to us by evangelists who make known the Good News. The word is so near that it is on our lips and in our hearts, Paul explained. The Word of God dwelt among us not only as the historic person in the incarnate Christ, who walked this earth; but that Word dwells with us in us today, comes close to each one of us, as we come to receive him on our lips in the sacrament we are gathered to receive, and in order to render our hearts to him.
By right, the final words ought to belong to the poet and priest we celebrate today:
Thou didst come thy fire to kindle;
Fain would we thy torches prove,
Far and wide thy beacons lighting
With the undying spark of love.
Only feed our flame, we pray thee,
with thy breathings from above.
Hymn for Easter-tide
It is my prayer for you and me, that we may come to know Christ in our hearts, by receiving him in the gifts of bread and wine he bestowed on his Church. It is my prayer that, filled with his presence we, too, might come to share in the work of making him known with all the skills and gifts God has given us, translating again the faith of old to a new generation longing, like Paul’s and Keble’s contemporaries, for someone – for you and for me – to proclaim to them Good News.
Thank you Rev. Dr. Loewe for the post. These hymns are beautiful. Yes, his fine work is overshadowed by the work of Charles Wesley, but Keble’s work is impressive. If you interest, I have incorporated many of the hymns of Charles Wesley in my novel, Black Country. Black Country is the opening book of a trilogy based on a young Francis Asbury. The Asbury Triptych Series seeks to honor Asbury’s work both in England and America. Naturally, Black Country links with the Anglican movement that John and Charles Wesley were a part of. Again, thank you for this impressive sermon.